In-person absentee voting for the November presidential election under COVID-19 social distancing guidelines would not have been possible in the Richmond registrar’s City Hall location.
So on Friday, a week before absentee voting kicks off in-person and by mail, city elections chief Kirk Showalter unveiled a new space on West Laburnum Avenue that she and her staff secured in May and quickly turned into their new home.
“I’m very excited [about the new location]. We could not have voted in-person absentee voting in our old City Hall location under COVID-19,” Showalter said.
The new office, dubbed “the temple of democracy,” has room for 20 to 30 people to vote absentee in-person at a time. Before, they had space for two at a time, safely, Showalter said. The early voting room features high-rise tables with dividers, allowing for four people to vote at each one.
Mayor Levar Stoney read a letter on behalf of former Richmond Mayor Henry L. Marsh III during Friday’s news conference.
“Kirk, by establishing this office you have once again demonstrated outstanding leadership,” Marsh wrote. “I look forward to experiencing a tour of the office when I vote in the upcoming election Nov. 3.”
Over 17,000 Richmonders had requested an absentee ballot as of Friday, Showalter said. She expects nearly 50% of the city’s roughly 150,000 voters to participate in absentee voting ahead of November.
Election registrars in the area have attributed the uptick in absentee voting to both COVID-19 as well as a new Virginia law allowing residents to vote absentee in-person or mail ahead of an election without a state-approved reason.
A registrar since 1996, Showalter has never seen absentee requests to this level, calling it “an off-the-charts increase.”
“I have never seen anything like this in any election,” she said.
A month ago, 11,000 absentee ballots had been requested; at the same time in the 2016 presidential election, only 500 absentee ballots had been requested.
As states grapple with mail-in voting for the first time, some voters have expressed concerns over their ballots actually being counted. Showalter has no concerns — in fact, she is in favor of all voters receiving mail-in ballots.
While a large population will vote absentee, Richmond and all other localities still need to be prepared for Nov. 3 itself. A month ago, Showalter said she was “really worried” about the number of poll workers the city would have by Election Day. But in the past few weeks, applications have been rolling in.
“I was very concerned because I saw a lot of fallout in [the] June [primary] and rightfully so, as our average poll worker is over 65 [years old],” Showalter said.
In the week before Election Day, Richmond will open two additional voting sites, City Hall and Hickory Hill Community Center, which will be open from Oct. 24 through Oct. 31. The city also will have drop-off ballot boxes.
Registrars in Chesterfield, Hanover and Henrico counties said last week that their absentee voting requests have reached historic levels. Chesterfield is adding four satellite voting sites for the first time, and all Nov. 3 poll workers will receive an additional $100, earning $250 for the day.
Hanover and Henrico are maintaining their normal early voting sites and will not extend monetary incentives for poll workers. Henrico will also have surveillance 24/7 for drop-off ballot boxes.